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Primitive-technology festival teaches skills and connection in Horse Shoe

An attendee at a past Firefly Gathering starts a fire from scratch.

Marissa Percoco doesn’t identify as a “prepper.” Meaning she’s not the type to stockpile canned tuna and toilet paper in anticipation of an apocalyptic event. But she does think something is fundamentally wrong with our societal systems.

“The world is at a tipping point, and has been for decades,” Percoco says, rattling off a laundry list of global ails: climate change, land scarcity, deforestation, gender and racial inequity. “We are just sounding the alarm.” 

When Percoco says “we,” she’s referring to the organizers of the Firefly Gathering, a “primitive technology” festival founded by Natalie Bogwalker and Kaleb Wallace in 2007. Hosted each year at different locations across Western North Carolina, the gathering is an opportunity for people to gain what organizers term “ancestral knowledge” with the hopes of living more harmoniously with the Earth. 

That can mean anything from serious gardening to creating fire with flint and steel to full-on blacksmithing. But there’s also a smorgasbord of niche workshops on topics like kudzu hat weaving and rivercane flute making. In 2019, the first gathering at Deerfields Retreat in Horse Shoe and the last gathering before the pandemic, there was even a sacred tattoo ceremony.   

Percoco, who serves as director, admits it all can sound a little woo-woo. When she taught a fermentation class at her first gathering in 2010, she was fairly skeptical. “But, oh my God, it felt so good to have a sense of community,” says Percoco, who was then living alone and off-grid with her four kids in Tennessee. 

Except for a short stint living nomadically out West, Percoco has been attending the yearly jamboree ever since. “It’s not a hippie party with loud music and drugs,” she clarifies. Rather, the gathering is better described as a Mecca for nonconformists who have woken up to the “insanity of modernity” and want a way out. “It attracts a really beautiful, eclectic mix of people from all different backgrounds,” says Percoco. 

On one end of the spectrum, there are leftward-leaning van dwellers and free spirits. On the other end, there are conservative farmers and blue-collar craftspeople. Typically, these antipodal parties would struggle to share a meal together, much less five full days of camping and learning. But at the Firefly Gathering, self-identifying Marxists rub elbows with stout Republicans. (Quite literally, if you sign up for the sweat-lodge experience.)

Though mingling with someone with fundamentally different beliefs can be uncomfortable, Percoco thinks it’s the elixir we all need right now. In the pandemic’s wake, political polarization has hit an ear-piercing crescendo and people are craving unity. That much is evident in ticket sales for this year’s event, slated for June 7 to 12 at Deerfields Retreat. 

“We have more sales right now than we ever have at this time of year,” says Percoco. “I believe it’s because people are just really hungry for skills. But, above all, they are hungry for connection.”

The 2022 Firefly Annual Gathering will be held Tuesday, June 7 through Sunday, June 12, at Deerfields Retreat (101 Watagnee Trail, Horse Shoe). Cost is $85-$340. For more information and to register, visit fireflygathering.com or call 828-237-2551.   

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